Pictured Above: RICH HISTORY. Looking for a method to preserve residue while also tilling a small area to prepare the seedbed, Illinois farmer Rich Follmer, founder of Progressive Farm Products, is credited with innovating an early version of a strip-till toolbar more than 30 years ago.
Rich Follmer didn’t set out to become a businessman. In the 1980s, the corn and soybean farmer from central Illinois — considered by many to be the grandfather of strip-till — designed and built a system that would allow him to till the ground and plant soybeans simultaneously.
That innovation not only caught the attention of his neighbors, but it led to the founding of his company, Progressive Farm Products. A few years later, a friend approached Follmer to discuss his frustrations with low yields from no-till compared with his conventionally tilled acres.
He wanted to find a solution that would warm the ground and dry it out enough to plant, while still maintaining his conservation efforts across his 2,500-acre operation in Hudson, Ill. Follmer came up with a solution — a piece of equipment that would till the ground in 8-10-inch-wide rows, while leaving the rest of the surrounding ground undisturbed. Before long, he dubbed this new farming method strip-tilling, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“We built a homemade 12-row bar with some crude row units at first to kind of clear a path in the field. We went into actual production in 1992 and we thought maybe we hit a home run with the system,” Follmer says. “So we had to figure out what to call it and the only thing we could think of was strip-till.”
Recently Follmer, who invented the midmount, dual-placement strip-till toolbar that is being used by thousands of Corn Belt farmers, sat down with Editor Frank Lessiter to discuss some of the early motivations for establishing a strip-till system, integrating cover crops, the best time to build berms and financial incentives for switch to
Frank Lessiter: When you started strip-tilling, what kind of yield response did you get?
Rich Follmer: The first couple of years, we were adding 20 bushels to the acre. Of course, all that does is get you more excited when you start coming out with those kinds of results right out of the shoot. I learned over the years that we had to be very careful to keep the planter on top of that strip.
You can get a 20-25 bushel yield advantage with strip-tilled corn over no-till. I’ve dealt with guys in the past that have gotten almost 40 bushels more to the acre. Years ago, there was a guy who had been no-tilling for 15 years and he said, ‘My yields are just as good as anybody’s.’
“Strip-till definitely saves money, because I don’t have to own, insure and maintain a chisel plow, soil finisher and other equipment. You’re burning a lot of fuel running a big 4WD tractor and it costs $150 an hour to run, and you’re pulling a chisel plow that cost you $80,000 more…”
I asked if he’d ever tried strip-till and he was mad at me for suggesting it. A year later he found me when I was exhibiting and apologized. He tried strip-till to prove me wrong, only his corn was 38 bushels better compared to just the pure no-till corn. He said, ‘Where’s my closest dealer to buy a strip-till bar?’
Lessiter: How many trips across the field would you make in your strip-till system and what kind of fuel savings can a newcomer expect vs. conventional or minimum-till?
Follmer: It definitely saves money, because I don’t have to own, insure and maintain a chisel plow, soil finisher and other equipment. You’re burning a lot of fuel running a big 4WD tractor, which costs $150 an hour to run, and you’re pulling a chisel plow that cost you $80,000 more.
When we make the trip with the strip-till bar, we apply 28% nitrogen (N) in one pass. On corn, we’ve been going to an herbicide program where we only spray once — we don’t spray pre-plant, we spray after the corn is planted. We let it grow 4-5 inches before we spray it. One application with the sprayer takes care of all of the weeds in the corn, so we’ve moved away from two sprayer applications on corn.
We’ve been using Y-Drops to apply some late-season N, so in a typical year, we’ll have four trips total — the strip-till pass, planting, spraying and the Y-Drop application. We’ve saved about 50% on our phosphorus (P) and potassium (K). It was a big cut. We don’t scrimp on our N, but we found that by applying the P and K in a small area we can get by with about half of what we were broadcasting, because we’re only covering the area where the corn roots are.
Lessiter: What kind of crop rotation do you maintain on your strip-tilled ground?
Follmer: We stopped continuous corn in 2009. Something happened when corn genetics changed and our continuous corn dropped off drastically. We fertilized the same, we tilled the same, the strips were the same, everything was the same, but the yields started to decline. The only thing I can put my finger on is the fact that genetics in our corn changed that year with the SmartStax hybrids. It’s not built for continuous corn, in my opinion.
We tend to run a rotation of 2-year soybeans, followed by corn, but never more than 2 years of beans back-to-back. We’ve noticed we can no-till beans 2 years in a row and we see no yield drag at all. After harvesting soybeans, we’ve strip-tilled in between the rows and also on top of them. It’s a little easier to build berms between the old rows, but strip-tilling on top of the old row is not a problem either.
Lessiter: Do you think spring or fall strip-till makes more sense, especially if applying nitrogen?
Follmer: I think spring works better. Depending on the kind of winter or early spring you have, you can get some erosion of the strips. In the fall, we build the berm a little taller and change the disc sealers in the back to roll the berm a little higher, because it’s going to settle naturally. When we designed our row units, we never used a swivel coulter. It was a rigid coulter that can flex up and down. It’s like having a bunch of rudders across the field to keep the bar pretty straight.
SIMPLY PROGRESSIVE. Rich Follmer’s innovative strip-till toolbar was a result of his desire to warm up the soil faster, while preserving the principles of conservation tillage.
In spring, we keep the berm a little bit shallower. If we get the berm too high in the spring and don’t get them settled, the row cleaners on the planter can roll away 2 inches of dry topsoil. Now we’re back planting in wet soil again. Our goal is to just kick a few clods out of the way with the row cleaners and plant the corn.
But rolling baskets in the fall can be effective. You’ve got to know what you’re doing because if you mash the berm down too hard, next spring you’re going to have a divot in the ground to plant in.
I’ll give you an example of where I learned that. When I was a little kid, my dad had a tiling machine. He tiled some ground north of our house, then he and my uncle back-filled it with dirt, but it wasn’t all done. He told me to go out there with the dirt blade and finish rolling the dirt into the rest of the tile ditch before supper.
So I did. Man, I did a nice job. It looked just like what he’d done ahead of that. Well, I thought, “I’m going to help him. I want to drive the tractor down that mound of dirt, squeeze it down, so it’s nice and flat for next spring.” I was proud of that. When he saw that he said, “What are you doing? Next spring, you’re going to have a hole in the ground.” I said, “No, we didn’t add any or take any dirt away. We just pushed the dirt back down in there on top of the tile you put in today.”
Dad was right. So you take that same philosophy if you squeeze that berm down too hard with the strip-till row units, over the winter and when spring rains come, that soil goes down. Now you’ve got a depression in the ground and that’s not where you want to plant.
Get More Strip-Till History
Tune into the Strip-Till Farmer podcast at www.StripTillFarmer.com to hear more from Rich Follmer on the origins of his strip-till system, how its evolved and what the future of the system could look like.
Lessiter: We’ve got a few people building wider berms and then planting twin-row corn on it. Will that work?
Follmer: If you can get the strip wide enough. Several years ago, I tried to build a strip-till bar for a guy that had a Great Plains twin-row planter. He wanted an extra wide strip, so we built him a special row unit. But even then, he was on contours and it made it hard to stay on the strips with twin rows. One’s hard enough, but twin rows made it a little harder. The twin rows were 8 inches apart and one would be on, and one would be off. It needed to be improved but we didn’t go much farther on it. It was more for prototype testing.
Lessiter: How are you using cover crops in your operation?
Follmer: We just started with cereal rye in 2019. We spread it with a fertilizer floater truck. The rye came up and it looked really good. We no-till planted soybeans directly into that rye — there were no strips. The thing that really opened my eyes to the cover crop was the fact that we didn’t spray any chemical on those soybeans. We had no pre-plant chemical and no post-applied chemical, and we had no weeds at all. I was shocked. I think strip-till and cover crops can work. We’ve got a couple of friends doing it and they’re doing all kinds of species — turnips, radishes and more.
Lessiter: What are your thoughts on equipment ‘trains’ and having several pieces of equipment pulled behind the tractor in the field?
Follmer: We never built that type of system. Our toolbars were built to carry the fertilizer right on board, so we had one implement behind a tractor that was it. We didn’t have a train rolling through the field. Now, if you had a farmer that wanted to apply dry fertilizer and he had our bar with a dry unit, he would have had to also pull an anhydrous tank in the fall because there was no other choice.
But the main thing was to keep the strip-till bar as close to the tractor as you could, so it didn’t wander up and down uneven terrain. You wanted to keep them as straight as you could because you had to follow the same path next spring with the corn planter. So long trains were very detrimental.
3 Lessons Learned from Strip-Till
Nearly 30 after inventing the Corn Belt’s version of the strip-till rig, Richard Follmer shares 3 of the practice’s advantages and must-do tips and techniques to maintain a successful system.
1. Build Berms for the Season. Follmer recommends that when strip-tilling in the fall, producers need to build a mound about 8-12 inches wide and 4-5 inches high. In the spring, they should build a more shallow mound. “In the fall, we recommend a mole knife because it can lift the soil and build a better mound,” he says. “We do not use a mole knife in the spring because we have found that it is too aggressive. We like to use a standard anhydrous knife. It’s actually a little thinner, but it does not disturb or leave an air pocket underneath, which can ruin germination.”
2, Equipment Decisions are Critical. Follmer’s goal is to grow 250-300-bushel corn. He says plant population and fertility aren’t the only factors to control in reaching that goal. Another is equipment.
“A lot of producers use dry or liquid fertilizer and plow it down along with anhydrous. You are missing a tremendous opportunity to save money, which helps pay for equipment,” he says. “For strip-tilling, you need to look at dual-placement equipment and try to do phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and nitrogen (N) placement all at the same time.”
Follmer says it’s critical that strips be at least 6-8 inches deep so fertilizer and N is below the seed zone. “You can’t afford to have fertilizer where seed is placed due to root burn and other problems,” he says. “We like to have it at least 4 inches from the seed that we’re going to follow and plant a day or 2 later or hopefully within
3. Focus on Fertilizer Savings. “We’ve seen a lot of farmers go to half or less than half of their phosphorus and potassium requirements than what they were broadcasting,” Follmer says. “That’s very important financially.”
Also, producers are reducing the rate of applied N, he says. “Many strip-tillers are using three-
quarters of a pound per bushel of corn produced. Why? Because when you go to root-zone banding, which is what strip-till is compared to broadcast, you have your fertilizer more contained within zones of the soil,” he says.
“That means a lot less fixation problems, more breakdown of the fertilizer by microbial bacteria and you concentrate fertilizer in a zone where the roots go very quickly.”
Follmer provided an example of the fertilizer savings in his area of central Illinois.
“One year, phosphorus and potassium broadcast in our area was $220 an acre,” he says. “On the strip-till program, our customers were doing half of that in dry. That’s more than $100 savings at $220.
“If you buy a $75,000 strip-till rig, that sounds like a lot of money. It’s like buying a corn planter. But it takes only 750 acres of corn at these savings to make the unit pay for itself.”
Read 8 more lessons learned from Follmer at www.StripTillFarmer.com/Lessons